REVEALED: The Protracted Journey to the Screen of Marvel’s Blockbuster ‘Doctor Strange’

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By Jonathan Gems | 2:32 pm, March 22, 2017
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It’s scary how long it takes for some movies to get made. In 1991 I was approached to write a film based on the Marvel comic Doctor Strange and I was told back then it had been in development for five years.

Twenty-five years later the movie finally came out in 2016, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the surgeon who, following a car accident, becomes a sorcerer. It has just been released on Blu-Ray and DVD.

Hollywood is not so much a film industry as a development industry. The producers and writers (and some directors) earn most of their wages from development—not from movies. (I once knew an A-list producer, who worked on film projects with big stars like Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington but who never actually produced a film.)

Here’s how it works: each studio—Sony, Warner Bros, Paramount, Universal, Disney and Fox—develops about 200 films a year. Out of these two hundred, they end up making no more than five. In total, the major studios spend roughly $1.44 billion a year on development.

Who gets the money? Producers, writers, some directors, their staff, agents, business managers, lawyers, accountants, boyfriends, girlfriends, friends-with-benefits, their favorite restaurants, dog-walkers, coke-dealers, Starbucks, and the I.R.S.

The only people who don’t get a piece of the pie are actors and crew—although, nowadays, most bankable actors attach themselves to projects as ‘producers’ to get a producer fee.

My treatment and draft script for Doctor Strange pursued the same basic idea as the final movie—the origins story.  Doctor Strange is in a serious accident, he’s a mess and is then offered the opportunity to go on an enlightened journey to Asia (Tibet in my draft).

How much development money was sunk into Doctor Strange’? It had to be a lot. For myself, I didn’t get any because, before my deal was finalized, my producer committed suicide.

He was Anton Furst—an English production designer I met in 1989 on the set of Batman (for which I wrote part of the screenplay). Tim Burton, the director, had taken a gamble and hired Furst to design the film and—with the help of his art director, Nigel Phelps—he did a fantastic job. Later, when Batman was released and became the biggest hit in Warner Bros’ history, Furst became hotter than a Mexican’s lunch.

Furst moved to L.A., with his gorgeous wife Penny, bought several pairs of cowboy boots, and never looked back. He was in great demand as a production designer, but he wanted more.

He was ambitious. He wanted to act. He wanted to direct. He wanted to produce. He wanted to make shed-loads of money.

He started ‘Planet Hollywood,’ an upmarket burger joint, which he persuaded stars like Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sylvester Stallone to invest in. It was an instant hit and was franchised all over the world. Everything Anton touched turn to gold.

Well, not quite everything. His relationship with his wife broke down, which was partly due to his growing fondness for Columbia’s chief export. The story of coke-psychosis is basically one of higher highs followed by lower lows.

When Anton got the rights to Doctor Strange (and asked me to write the script), he was king of the hill. Anton’s plan was for Tim Burton to direct Doctor Strange. 

But, two months later, he was dead. What happened? Apparently, he went to see a doctor to help him with his cocaine addiction and was prescribed Halcion, a drug that may or may not have helped.

He then fell into a deep depression and, following the advice of friends, joined a psychotherapy group, which met at a well-known L.A. hospital. One day, he arrived at the hospital, to attend his psychotherapy group, and was refused admittance. Apparently, his name was not on the list.

This threw him into such despair that he returned to the parking garage where he’d left his car, took the elevator to the eighth floor, and threw himself off.

Doctor Strange went into turnaround, I was treated like I didn’t exist, and that was the end of it. Don’t be a Hollywood screenwriter if you don’t have a thick skin.

But I’ll always remember Anton—his hair-whipping energy, his irrepressible optimism, his generous smile, and his bold way of standing, with his jeans tucked into his cowboy boots.

One of the things I gained from the experience was an acute awareness of the difficulties of adapting Steve Ditko and Stan Lee’s Doctor Strange for the screen. Of all the Marvel comics, it’s the most complex and sophisticated.

So when I heard Disney was finally releasing it, I was curious to see what kind of a mess they’d made of it.

The writers were Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson—who also directed—and Robert Cargill. I’d never heard of them. I went to my local multiplex to see the movie, not expecting to like it. In the end they did better than I could have done.

But the guys who made Doctor Strange did something miraculous. Doctor Strange is similar to the Greek pantheon with its Gods, multi-dimensional universe ruled by different forces and levels of reality. But it’s all there on the screen. The micro and the macro. The conflicts in Steven Strange’s psyche being reflected in the war between the Gods.

Through a perfectly paced and compelling narrative, we are taught about the path to enlightenment—the necessity to face your shadow—as well the interlocking roles of fate, Karma, and freedom of choice.

What’s more, we are treated to a dissertation on good, evil, ignorance, and delusion; the primacy of the soul-journey, the need to tame the mind and overcome the ego; the value of courage, and the metaphysical, multi-dimensional nature of reality.

Almost all the philosophical and cosmological elements in Doctor Strange are realized in the movie—with no loss in terms of what we expect from the best of Hollywood: superb acting (Cumberbatch and a bald-headed Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One—wow), tight plotting, great music, slick editing, stunning photography, awesome stunts, and astounding special effects.

When the comic-book movies of our time are judged, Doctor Strange will be regarded as a classic.

Doctor Strange is now out on Blu-Ray and DVD